Lagos State Small Claims Court: A Milestone In Dispute Resolution

Judgement, Enforcement and Appeal

A Magistrate of the Small Claims Court is required to deliver judgment in a dispute before it within fourteen (14) days of the completion of hearing. This is required to include the Court’s determination of issues raised in any interlocutory application(s) filed by any of the parties. Notably, the Practice Directions provide that the entire period of proceedings from filing till judgment shall not exceed sixty (60) days). However, a judgment of the Small Claims Court shall not be invalid by reason of the entire proceedings of the court having exceeded sixty (60) days. The Magistrate is equally required to issue authenticated copies of the judgment immediately after its delivery but in any event not exceeding seven (7) days from the date of the delivery of the judgment.

A judgement debtor in a small claims dispute is obliged to comply with the judgment of the Court and pay the judgment sum within fourteen (14) days of delivery of judgment and where there is default in compliance, the relevant judgment shall be enforced in like manner as a judgement of the Magistrate’s Court for the payment of money.

A party who is aggrieved with the judgement of the Court shall file an Appeal by filling the prescribed form within 14 (fourteen days) of the delivery of the Judgment, stating the reasons for the Appeal. The records of appeal are required to be compiled, within fourteen (14) days of the submission of the Appeal Form, by the Small Claims Registry and thereafter forwarded to the Fast Track Registry of the High Court, where it is then assigned to a Judge of the Fast Track Court designated to hear appeals from the Small Claims Court. The Judge so designated shall cause Hearing Notices to issue to the parties and the Appeal shall be heard at the earliest convenience of the Court, based on the oral hearing of the parties and the records of the appeal. The Practice Directions state that the whole appellate process, from the assignment of the Appeal to judgment, shall not exceed thirty (30) days.

COMPARISON WITH OTHER JURISDICTIONS

The concept of the Small Claims Court has over the years developed into a standard global practice. Whilst there are manifest similarities in the practices and procedures applicable in many jurisdictions across the globe, there exist also differences caused by the local peculiarities and national aspirations.

In England and Wales, cases placed on the small claims track at the County Court include Claims in which the financial value is less than £10,000 (equivalent of N5,000,000) and cases involving personal injuries or disputes between landlords and tenants where the amount involved does not exceed £1,000 (equivalent of N500,000).

In the United States of America, the jurisdiction of the Small Claims Court varies from one State to another. Whilst it is US$ 5,000 (N1,800,000) exclusive of interest and costs in New York, it is US$ 10,000 (N3,600,000) in Texas. Notably, in the New York Small Claims Courts, for a counterclaim to be competent and maintainable, such must be for money only and which must not exceed the monetary jurisdiction of the court.

In Kenya, the court’s pecuniary jurisdiction is limited to KES 200,000 (equivalent to N720,000) and the court deals only with cases arising from contracts for sale and supply of goods or services; liability in tort arising from loss or damage to any property or for delivery or recovery of movable property; compensation for personal injuries; set-off or counterclaims under any contract; and any other civil matters as prescribed by law.

In Brazil, the jurisdiction of Small Claims Court involves low-value damage (up to BRL 35 200 equivalent to N3,699,421.86).  In a very similar fashion to the procedure under the Practice Directions applicable in Lagos State, the proceeding in Brazil is also preceded by Facilitated Negotiation and ended in litigation only where amicable settlement of disputes cannot be reached.

The Small Claims Court in South Africa entertains actions for repayment of monies lent, which originally, at inception in October 1985, should not exceed R12, 000. This figure has since April 2014 been increased to R15, 000 (approximately N424,000). Other cases that are also entertained are actions for the delivery of movable or immovable property, claims arising from liquid documents such as bonds, promissory notes, acknowledgement of debts and cheques etc., as well as actions against occupiers of properties; where the value of the claims do not exceed R15, 000.

Also in in Zimbabwe, the jurisdiction of the Small Claims Court is exercisable in respect of proceedings for the delivery of movable property, recovery of arrear rentals and ejectment, as well as proceedings based on acknowledgments of debt or cheques; where the claim does not exceed US$1 000 (N360,000).

At the LCA, the forerunner to the Small Claims Court of Lagos State, the small claims initiative introduced was developed to resolve disputes for claims involving amounts not exceeding N5, 000,000 and is applicable where both parties agree to settle their dispute in accordance with the Scheme, either before or after the dispute has arisen. This threshold is same with that prescribed under the 2018 Lagos State Small Claims Court Practice Directions.

Notably, the jurisdictional limit of the Small Claims Court in Lagos is higher than the limits set in the other African countries and only lower than the thresholds in the more developed emerging economies and the advanced nations of the world. This is understandable, given Nigeria’s position as Africa’s most populous nation and largest economy.

REMARKS

The establishment of the Small Claims Court in Lagos State, the first of its kind in the Nigerian judicial system, is without doubt a watershed. Notably, “enforcement of contracts” through introduction of specialized small claims commercial courts, was part of the reform initiatives recommended by the Presidential Enabling Business Environment Council (“PEBEC”), through its organ, the Enabling Business Environment Secretariat (EBES), in the National Action Plans on the Ease of Doing Business in Nigeria (NAPs). Lagos State and Kano State are the two pilot States in the country, selected by PEBES/EBES in association with the World Bank, for the purpose of implementing the reform initiatives of the NAPs. It is therefore expected that the speedy, cheap, and seamless system of adjudicating on the avalanche of small commercial disputes in Lagos State, the nation’s center of commerce and investment, would improve on the sanctity of contracts in the country, and consequently further boost the confidence of foreign investors in the Nigerian economy.

Whilst the Small Claims Court has its pros and cons, it has indeed worked in many jurisdictions the world over and there is no doubt that with hard work, commitment and determination, it will equally work successfully in Lagos State.

We note that while parties are encouraged to represent themselves before the Small Claims Court, businesses and corporations are still likely to engage the services of lawyers in establishing their claims before the Court. The same goes for illiterate litigants, who in spite of the aid of an interpreter and court registrars, may find it extremely difficult to properly gather and file their documentary evidence as well as present their oral submission before the Court. This can put an unrepresented Claimant at a disadvantage.

Finally, we submit that adequate and periodic training in the practice and procedure of the Small Claims Court for Magistrates, Registrars, Clerks, Sheriffs and other relevant judiciary staff, would be critical to the successful working of small claims commercial disputes resolution in Lagos State, and by extension, Nigeria.

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